Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) formally announced his presidential campaign, surprising few political watchers. He sounded like the left-wing version of “blow up the system” in his email to supporters:
Our campaign is not only about defeating Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in modern American history. It is not only about winning the Democratic nomination and the general election. Our campaign is about transforming our country and creating a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice.
Unfortunately for Sanders, nothing he says these days sounds all that revolutionary given the loud and enthusiastic progressive wing of the party and other candidates saying pretty much the same thing. He cites health care, although other contenders have embraced Medicare-for-all. He points to climate change, but a number of Democratic candidates for president have already signed onto the Green New Deal. He wants to stop demonization of immigrants, but Beto O’Rourke — who is reportedly still mulling a presidential run — and others have been saying that for months. Free college tuition? Yawn. We’ve seen that proposal.
In short, Sanders is offering little different from many younger, less cranky Democrats, including nonwhite candidates who haven’t struggled to win over African Americans and women and who haven’t had to explain complaints of sexual harassment in their campaigns.
He’s in a bit of a political trap this time around. His dystopian description of America and his continued call for a “revolution” is likely to turn off moderate voters. In the Democratic primary, those voters have plenty of appealing candidates from which to choose. From the other end of the spectrum, it’s hard to see what he is offering that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) isn’t, not to mention Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) or Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). It’s not clear in a Democratic primary what the rationale for picking an old, white male with his agenda over younger women (including a nonwhite woman).
In fact, after midterm elections in which moderate candidates endorsed by the moderate New Democrats flipped batches of Republican House seats and Sanders-endorsed (“Our Revolution”) candidates flipped none, Democrats, who are uniformly desperate to win, might have the idea his vision lacks widespread appeal.
Ironically, the Democrats who should be delighted to see him enter the races are the few candidates (or likely candidates) who’ve run as mainstream Democrats. If Sanders, Warren and others slice and split the left wing, a more sober-minded Democrat (e.g., former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar) may have a chance to consolidate 15 to 20 percent of the vote early on — unless a bunch of moderates enter the race to carve up that segment of the party.
It remains an open question whether there is a candidate who can appeal both to 2016 Sanders voters and those frantic to win back the White House. Someone such as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) or Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) might be able to pull that off, if he can avoid the trap of being too moderate for progressives and too progressive for moderates.
Finally, Sanders’s candidacy might serve as a blinking red light for Biden. Democrats generally don’t believe party veterans have some inherent advantage. Biden will not be able to count on nostalgia any more than Sanders can. In the search for the Trump-slayer, Democrats are entirely capable of ruthless ingratitude to familiar faces. They want to win. Period.
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